Mr. Spud

An Ordinary Mover and Shaker

By Diana Hooley

On Mother’s Day I’ll probably go to a greenhouse and buy some flowers and plants. I’ve done this for many years because May is the perfect time to buy plants. One spring my husband and I were at a greenhouse in Boise when we ran into the agricultural scion of Idaho, J. R. Simplot.

He was an old man at the time, hunch-shouldered and thin, wearing a fedora. I watched him look over a hanging basket filled with geraniums and marveled that a billionaire industrialist spent time in a greenhouse.

But someone in northern Idaho has probably seen Duane Hagadone in the grocery store, or someone in a park in eastern Idaho has seen Frank VanderSloot. Wealthy people who’ve made important contributions are ordinary people, too.

That day in the greenhouse was the first time I’d seen J.R. in the flesh, but he and I have had a long history. That’s the thing about Idaho: our population is small enough that you don’t have to personally know the movers and shakers to feel their impact on your life.

My first encounter with the Simplot name came when I married an Idaho farmer in 1976. We raised potatoes the first few years of our marriage. My husband got disgruntled when Simplot cornered both him and the potato market. He didn’t like buying spring fertilizer from the same company he sold potatoes to in the fall. So he switched to raising beans and hay.

After that my opinion of J.R. wasn’t very good, but then I met a farmer in the next valley who greatly admired the man. He told me that with only an eighth-grade education, J. R. Simplot built an empire through hard work and innovation. He made frozen french fries, a staple of fast food chains.

My farmer friend had dreams himself of making his fortune with potatoes. He designed a machine that would use an electronic eye to sort spuds for size and quality. Years later, potato sorters now are commonly used in processing plants.

I didn’t consciously think about J.R. Simplot, but at least once or twice a week I drove past his company’s big sign at the Hammett potato sheds. People we knew had lucrative careers at Micron, a Simplot initiative, and I took my children skiing at Bogus Basin and Brundage, both resorts funded and supported in part by him.

He must have enjoyed skiing, or his children and grandchildren did, but I didn’t know anything about his family. My friend John did, though. John grew up in Glenns Ferry in the 1940s.

His mother was friends with J.R.’s first wife, Ruby Rosevear of Glenns Ferry. John remembers his mother saying how she teased Ruby for wanting to marry “that old spud farmer.” Later, he saw the Simplot kids playing at George Rosevear’s house.

The last time J.R. inadvertently touched my life was a year or so before he died. Our neighbor Bob told me he’d recently seen Simplot at the potato plant in Caldwell. Bob was a trucker and hauled potatoes to the plant, often late at night.

He said he was unloading spuds at three in the morning when he noticed an older gentleman circling the potato piler. Their eyes met briefly. They smiled and nodded at each other. The gentleman plucked a russet potato off the moving chain-link belt, and turned it over in his hand to examine it.

Bob suspected who the older gentleman was but didn’t know for sure until he drove away. Just like ordinary folk, J. R. Simplot had a vanity license plate on the back of his car. It read, “Mr. Spud.”

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Diana Hooley

About Diana Hooley

Diana Hooley spent several years as a professor at Idaho State University before returning to journalism and freelance writing. She has written recently for the Idaho Statesman and the Twin Falls Times-News as a guest commentator on environmental and agricultural issues. Visit her at

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